12 Days of Reading Recommendations, Day 9: The Beautiful People

Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.

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THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE

Early on the pandemic, my concentration was shot to the point where the only books I could finish were celebrity autobiographies. Don't judge me! Vox book critic Constance Grady went through something similar:

It takes energy to let a book save you. I didn’t have that energy.

I built up to it slowly. I read trashy fanfiction. (Good fanfiction exists, but the stuff I was reading in April was trashy.) I read old children’s books. I read old cookbooks. I read Jane Austen.

After awhile I was able to start reading new books again.

So, yes, I read Todd Fisher's My Girls: A Lifetime with Carrie and Debbie, and couldn't shake the anger with which he wrote about Hollywood's failure to take Debbie Reynolds' Hollywood costume archive seriously. It was the least polished, most sincere feature of a very cautious narrative.

I read Isaac Mizrahi's I.M.: A Memoir, and I'm a little closer to understanding what drove his fashion design -- he's a lot like Kate Spade, as their clothes always felt as if they were meant to be blithely witty, but one could always sense the very serious ambition giving their designs an edge of calculation.

Mizrahi's book could also double as a history of the rise and fall of glamour industries as they went multinational and became accountable to investors. Dana Thomas's Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano posits the global expansion of retail and luxury brands is what is actually killing fashion; she looks at the troubles McQueen and Galliano had -- and, let's be real, inflicted on others -- and her reporting makes it clear that people are permitted to be sacred monsters so long as there's money in it.

One of the most sacred monsters of fashion gets a modern analysis in Rhoda K. Garelick's Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History. I've read a few books on Chanel -- Karen Karbo's The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons From The World's Most Elegant Woman is a nice entry-level primer that does not bowdlerize Chanel's personal life, yet remains a warm bath of a read.

Garelick's book made my blood run cold. This is a compliment. She rebuilt my understanding of Coco Chanel and her work, and her dissection of Chanel's ascension in the 1920s and 1930s feels extremely current:

From the 1920s through the dawn of World War II, a new kind of crowd was forming in Germany, Italy, and France—drawn to the charismatic leaders Hitler, Mussolini, and Marshal Pétain, who all wove myths around themselves and their nations to attract and keep followers. Like those men, Chanel was a charismatic leader offering an uplifting story, a story of glory by association.

Just as she did routinely with the environments of her lovers and friends, Chanel absorbed and synthesized her political environment. Coming of age professionally just as those new mass movements took shape, she channeled her talents into a version of such a movement, which was heavily inflected by the beliefs and iconography of fascism, to which she was deeply attracted.

Coco may not have intended this to happen, despite her own right-wing, pro-Nazi worldview. Yet her fashion revolution wound up echoing and even, perhaps, abetting the social and psychological tendencies necessary to any mass political movement rooted in exclusionism, racism, fervent nationalism, and myth.

And I also read up on another cult of personality launched by someone who capitalized on economic opportunities in that turbulent period and founded a dynasty on it: The Kennedys. I read two middling books I can't recommend, and then remembered: my favorite thing about the Kennedys had always been Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. So I can recommend Sam Kashner's The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters, because reading it was like falling into the longest, dishiest Vanity Fair article ever, or being subject to a Truman Capote performance at La Côte Basque.

After a year of reading about the beautiful people, I drew an inescapable conclusion: Nobody in these books ever looks good, but everyone always looks chic.

BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER:

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